Historian. Democracy Activist.
I am a historian and a democracy activist. As far as I can recall, I have always loved reading about history. I think learning and studying history is about finding a connection to human experiences and perspectives. Looking back, we can be mesmerized by the achievements and the breath of life that had happened before our own lifetime. As a kid, I would pop my head between the passenger and driver seats when my parents were driving, and tell them the history chapters I read that day. In college, I studied politics because at the core of this study it is all about understanding history. I think it is inevitable that as I grow older I would start to look for the history of my own heritage too.
Around 2016, the historian in me began to collect and produce short documentary series about Taiwanese American democracy activists who were on the Blacklist during the martial law era, and another series about Taiwanese LGBTQ activists’ civil rights struggles in current day Taiwan. I believe that we are all making history, and when we can, I believe we must hear the very people who were involved tell the stories themselves. As I learned more and more about my own Taiwanese history, the prouder I became of my Taiwanese heritage, and I cannot help but want to become more involved with the Taiwanese American/Taiwanese community. Currently, I also serve as the Director of Civic Engagement on the Taiwanese American Citizens League’s national board, where I led efforts in the Write In Taiwanese Campaign for the 2020 U.S. Census.
How does being Taiwanese/Taiwanese American and/or community ally play a role in your life?
Being Taiwanese has taught me a lot about how to be proud and be in love with who I am. In elementary school in Taiwan, I was punished for putting down Taiwan for my ancestry instead of a Chinese province, but all I knew was that my grandma had told me that our family came from Taiwan. I can still remember the snap of the wooden stick as they slapped the inner part of my palm. When my family immigrated to the United States, my parents would avoid discussing whether we are Taiwanese when we meet with other people who immigrated from Taiwan. Now, I understand their behaviors had been greatly shaped by the White Terror and Marital Law era. When I was in college, a Chinese American classmate told me that she does not recognize such a place called Taiwan. It was yet another life lesson about how important it is to affirm my own heritage!
After graduating from college, I signed up for the United States Peace Corps and was assigned to serve in Ukraine. When I arrived in Ukraine for my service, I had a letter from my dad. In it, he wrote that it was perhaps for the best to round out my education half in Taiwan and half in the United States. Only in looking back did I realize how much of my Taiwanese American identity was deepened in those two years of experience in Ukraine. I was so moved by my Ukrainian friends’ excitement for voting for their own president for the first time; I think it was my Taiwanese background that added a certain dimension to my sympathy for their struggle. When skinheads were targeting foreign election observers during this time, now known as the Orange Revolution, two other U.S. Peace Corps volunteers and I were assaulted. I joked with my Ukrainian friends that I had become an “accidental revolutionary” with them. The U.S. Peace Corps gave me a choice to go home, but I stayed. I was honored to be there with my Ukrainian friends in their fight for their country and their democracy. So many years later, I still feel like an honorary Ukrainian, and I think it was both my Taiwanese and American background that made me feel so strongly and deeply in what they were fighting for.
If you could teach future generations 1 thing about being Taiwanese/Taiwanese American or Taiwan, what would it be?
If I could pass on a lesson about anything, it would be that good friends are pivotal for our own growth so be sure to take time to celebrate your friendship whenever you can. When I took on the challenge to lead the Write-In Taiwanese Campaign for the 2020 Census, many of us were frustrated that Taiwanese still had to write in and we still don’t have a pre-existing box in the U.S. Census form. The Write In Campaign had been happening every ten years since 1990, but I realized our message this time around would have to be bigger than just ensuring an accurate count. I thought it could be an opportunity to get everyone excited again about being Taiwanese!
My friend Chieh-Ting Yeh, a good friend for many years, really helped me shape the key message for the Write In Taiwanese Campaign for the 2020 Census. In our initial discussions, I wanted to focus on events and history for why I am so proud of my Taiwanese heritage like how Taiwan moved from martial law to open democratic elections, like reforms that ensured political participation for women and the indigenous people, and the improvements for LGBTQ rights by establishing marriage equality. As I listed these amazing accomplishments and progress made by Taiwanese and Taiwanese American people, he reminded me that really at the core of our pride was something that goes even deeper and more personal than anything that we could put into words. He reminded me that our pride is good enough to stand on its own and from that we came up with the campaign slogan “This is Who We Are. Make It Count”. It was something so brilliant that I know that I could never have come up on my own and demonstrated to me the power of a good friendship!
What does the future of Taiwanese America look like to you?
I am really inspired by an art installation called “There are Black People in the Future” by artist Alisha Wormley. My first reaction to this artwork was a complete appreciation for what a brilliant way to re-frame the question on bigotry and racism. Then immediately after that, I wanted to shout that “There are Taiwanese/Taiwanese Americans in the Future” too. I am in awe that there is this space that opens up where our aspirations can turn into reality when we do look to our future.
To this day, I still feel the need to prepare myself for backlash when I tell people I am Taiwanese. Although it has become less frequent, I am still not surprised when I get comments like “oh, you are one of those”. As our future becomes our present, I dream of a time when there is no need for any justification or assertion for when we simply claim our own heritage for ourselves as Taiwanese or Taiwanese Americans anywhere.
Favorite memory of Taiwan/Taiwanese America?
This is probably the hardest question from the bunch because I had so many memories of my childhood in Taiwan that it is almost too cruel to pick just one. There have been so many changes in my own life time, remembering back to what my childhood was like in Taiwan, it feels like traveling back to another time and space.
I have memories of getting my grandmother the largest hardcover English dictionary to use as a pillow whenever she visits me; I remember trying so hard to sleep like her but decided I was too used to my own soft pillow to change, and waking up around 4 am in the morning and following her to the park for the morning street market visit. I also remember saving snack money so I could buy the pork blood cake from the street cart by the park near my home. I would have to make sure I wipe all the peanut powder off my face so I wouldn’t be caught by my mom for buying food from street carts. I remember stores would sell me firework devices that I requested promising to give the loudest boom that is available from the stores. I and my sister planned to set it off pointing into the creek canyon near my house so the echo would double the sound.
All these memories made me smile so much when I look back at them. These are simple and small joys that I know I will treasure for the rest of my life.